Early Childhood

Experts Want a Focus on Black Boys’ Nonacademic Skills

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 12, 2011 4 min read
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Schools should increase their attention to social and emotional development in the early grades as one way to prevent African-American boys from falling behind their peers, researchers said at a recent symposium on closing the achievement gap between African-American males and other student groups.

Panelists at the meeting hosted by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service and the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund last month also said that a significant portion of the dollars spent on incarcerating black males in this country would be better spent on high-quality early-childhood education.

Given the typically low graduation rates and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress of black males, the symposium’s goal was to identify promising practices and policies to get them off to a strong start. It focused on how to influence the path for the nation’s 3.5 million black males under the age of 9.

“We want to consider ways to position this vulnerable population for educational success as early as possible in their lives,” said Michael T. Nettles, a senior vice president of the ETS.

To make that happen, said Oscar A. Barbarin III, a psychology professor at Tulane University, in New Orleans, kindergarten and 1st grade have to be more like preschool in addressing children’s needs holistically.

“You have to help your teachers incorporate more developmentally sensitive approaches,” added Mr. Barbarin, a panelist at the symposium. His research has focused on how social factors and family practices correlate with ethnic and gender achievement gaps.

Gap Emerges Early

Mr. Barbarin characterized schools as stressing the teaching of academic content, starting in kindergarten, but giving short shrift to imparting social and emotional skills. He said principals should place their best teachers in preschool and kindergarten to give all children a good start in school.

The Tulane professor said he’d like to see the policies changed in the United States so that the estimated $40,000 typically spent each year to incarcerate a prisoner could instead be used to help low-income families establish good practices for learning and to improve education in preschool and the early grades.The convergence of “maleness, ethnicity, and poverty,” he said, contributes to particularly negative academic outcomes for black males, compared with black girls.

The achievement gap between black males and the average achievement levels for all children starts early and persists through the school years, said another presenter, Iheoma U. Iruka, a researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study show that at the age of 24 months, black males already lag behind average cognitive-development levels by about half a school year, and that gap is the same regardless of the income level of the boys’ families, she said.

Nationwide, however, reading and mathematics gaps between African-American boys and all students at the age of 9 decreased slightly from 1987 to 2008, which is good news, Ms. Iruka reported.

She added that studies show that in the early grades, African-American boys are rated by their teachers much lower than all children on average in what she calls “their approaches to learning”—curiosity, persistence, and initiating their own learning, among them.

Ms. Iruka urged policymakers to invest more money in early-childhood education, such as by offering higher salaries for early-childhood educators and caregivers.

Role of ‘Self-Regulation’

Only a small number of studies on the achievement of African-American boys in the early grades exist.

Jamaal S. Matthews, a professor of educational psychology at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, and two colleagues are among those who have contributed to the body of knowledge. They conducted a study of 268 first-time kindergartners in a public school district in Michigan that examined the link between “behavioral self-regulation” and academic achievement. The study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2009, found boys were less likely than girls to show self-regulation, but that didn’t translate into an achievement gap in kindergarten. The researchers looked at five areas of early achievement as measured by a standardized test: applied problems (mathematics), general knowledge, letter-word identification, expressive vocabulary, and sound awareness.

But given that black boys lag behind black girls in achievement in elementary and middle school, the findings spurred the researchers to ask “whether the gender gap in self-regulation in kindergarten is the seed of a problem waiting to take root in achievement ... in later years.”

In an interview at the forum, Mr. Matthews said the ability of students to adjust their behavior, such as to initiate learning before a teacher asks them to do something, has a big impact in “making educational environments cater to them.” He added that boys who lack self-regulation skills may be viewed by teachers as aggressive.

One conference-goer drew hearty applause from some of the nearly 400 people in attendance when he brought up the role of broader societal issues in the well-being of African-American boys.

“When do we begin to focus our energies on the repressive social system black boys are forced to live in, in this country?” asked Thurman L. Bridges, an associate professor of teacher education at Morgan State University, in Baltimore.

If the success of black males is a barometer of the health of society, he said, “we should focus our attention on assessing their resilience, their ability to survive, given the society is built for their demise.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Experts Want a Focus on Black Boys’ Nonacademic Skills

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